By the late 80s, The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band was routinely peaking in the upper regions of the country charts and had even scored two number one hits along the way. But they’d yet to release their signature song, which would change when Hold On hit stores in July of 1987.
The album saw three singles released. Non-descript rocker “Baby’s Got A Hold On Me” came first, peaking at #2. The album’s third single “Oh What A Love” was much better, with a pleasant acoustic-based shuffle arrangement featuring prominent mandolin. The mid-tempo ballad comes off a tad cheesy today, but the arrangement and tight harmonies from the band keep it listenable.
Between those two singles, which are forgettable at best, came the aforementioned signature song. Written by Wendy Waldman and Jim Photoglo, “Fishin’ In The Dark” is an iconic single from the period, a modern masterpiece that sounds as timeless today as it did twenty-seven years ago. The combination of Jeff Hanna’s commanding vocal and Josh Leo’s flawless production is irresistible. Not since Alabama’s “Mountain Music” a full five years earlier had an opening sequence (Gentle acoustic guitar plucking building to include twangy electric guitar, ribbons of harmonica, and attention-grabbing drum beats) been so identifiable.
Eddy Raven took his version of “Joe Knows How To Live,” written by Max D. Barnes, Lyle Graham, and Troy Seals to number one in 1988. Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s version is just as good as Ravens, albeit identical except for Hanna’s smoother vocal tone and the band’s inclusion of harmonica.
Bruce Springsteen solely wrote “Angelyne,” a slick slice of synth drenched country rock that contains a good lyric but is packaged too neatly for my taste. Richard Leigh co-wrote “Blue Ridge Mountain Girl,” a brilliantly excused ballad that would’ve been even stronger had Hanna sang lead. Karen Staley wrote the album’s closing number, “Tennessee.” I love the fiddle, steel, and band harmonies on the track, but the overtones of synth drown out any real enjoyment of the neo-traditional leaning track. Wayne Holyfield co-wrote “Dancing To The Beat of a Broken Heart,” which still leans on the synth, but is better with Hanna in the lead.
Various members of the band contributed songs to the project as well. Hanna co-wrote, “Keepin’ The Road Hot,” a generic number similar to Restless Heart’s style at the time. Jimmie Fadden, meanwhile, solely wrote “Oleanna.” The production on the ballad is too synth driven, and Fadden’s vocal is bland.
Hold On is a mixed bag of an album, heavy on synth, and lacking any real identity beyond “Fishin’ In The Dark.” The harmonies are fantastic, though, but to today’s ears the album is a bit too 80s.